Close up poster of the movie Barcelona

Contagious Enthusiasm: The Passionate Salesman in Barcelona

There are a handful of great movies about sales—Glengarry Glen Ross, Salesman, Tommy Boy—all classics. There are valuable lessons in each of these films, and they can certainly serve up some inspiration. By and large, however, film characters in the sales profession tend to possess qualities that are less than appealing. I’ve seen very few movies that feature people working in sales who aren’t road-weathered hustlers, ruthless schemers, hedonistic imbeciles, or macho motor mouths. Most are men who yell more than they talk, don’t take no for an answer, and are driven primarily by greed. Where are the depictions of sales figures that are just decent, everyday, comfortably successful people?

Enter Whit Stillman’s 1994 comedy-drama, Barcelona.

Set in Spain’s capital city during “the last decade of the Cold War,” the film follows a young salesman from Chicago named Ted Boynton searching for personal and professional growth. And of course, because it is a Whit Stillman film, romantic connection. For those not familiar with Stillman’s movies, they may remind you of films by directors like Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach. His characters are almost always very smart, fast-talking, young, white people with lofty ambitions. For better or for worse, Barcelona is no exception. I should also point out that Barcelona, though it features a central protagonist in sales, is not a sales movie in the traditional sense. I am writing about it specifically because I think that’s part of what could make it so refreshing to salespeople.

Instead, Barcelona is a purely character-driven story that focuses more on its subjects’ personal lives than the details of their professions. Ted’s navy officer cousin Fred unexpectedly comes to town and meddles in his relationships. Meanwhile, Ted attempts to find meaning or satisfaction in his life by rethinking his approach to dating (beautiful women are out) and turning to an unlikely source for romantic advice (the Old Testament). The two cousins quarrel and debate with each other, try to make sense of their Spanish peers’ cultural differences, and hobnob with a pair of women named Montserrat and Marta (Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino). Anti-Americanism abounds. Disco dancing takes place. Language barriers lead to miscommunications and misunderstandings.

And amidst all this, Ted works a sales job for IHSMOCO, the Illinois High Speed Motor Corporation. He narrates a montage in which he explains how he came to sales and why it suits him. The way he describes his work makes it sound less like a job and more like a vocation. It has introduced him to a world of continual education and self-betterment, and it even serves as a refuge from his personal troubles. “In sales,” he explains, “I found not just a job but a culture. Franklin, Emerson, Carnegie, and Bettger were our philosophers. And thanks to the genius of Carnegie’s theory of human relations, many customers also became friends.” He describes how his attitude towards the “mundane world of business” was turned on its head by a charismatic college professor and details his enthusiasm for arriving to work early to read reports from overseas.

In this five-minute montage alone, Barcelona does more to validate and dignify the profession of sales than any other film I’ve seen. Ted embodies many of the qualities central to success in sales: rigid self-discipline, intense focus, a desire to become better at his craft, a positive attitude, an open mind, strong social skills, etc. Some may find that these qualities make him a bit unrelatable and even downright irritating. If one of my colleagues sat at his desk reading Frank Bettger and occasionally spouting quotes about the value of honesty in client interactions, I’d probably roll my eyes, as Ted’s sandwich-eating coworker seems to be politely restraining herself from doing. His Boy Scout-ish demeanor is somewhat contrasted, ironically, by Fred’s cynical, occasionally petty point of view. Fred, a U.S. naval lieutenant, mocks Ted’s commitment to learning the ways of the great “philosophers” of business. “Every day, in every way, I’m becoming a better and better lieutenant junior grade,” he dryly sneers in a (probably borrowed) bathrobe.

It might be easy to identify with these less square characters, but somehow, Ted manages to be the most likeable. He is sincere, hardworking, and dedicated to self-improvement—personality traits that will take you a long way in any career and life in general. And still, Ted is human. He questions whether he has chosen the right career, worries contemptuously about a coworker in marketing taking over the sales department, and becomes flustered when he doesn’t get what he wants. We’ve all been there, and the most put-together, high achieving salespeople among us are no exception.

So next time you’re in need of some inspiration, consider giving Barcelona a watch. The wolves of wall street and brass-balled possessors of golden leads make for more dramatic entertainment, but the Ted Boyntons of cinema are more admirable. The small but robust category of sales films could use more characters like him.

Clark Gapen

Sales Executive